The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part II: Preserving and Preparing Sacred Plant Medicine October 21, 2018

The moonlight shines through the window in my kitchen as I carefully use a mortar and pestle to grind dried herbs for making tea.  Candlelight softly illuminates the space, and I have my recipe book with me, ensuring that I record everything that I’m doing for future use. Magic is in the air; working in a sacred space at a sacred time on the Fall Equinox ensures that these medicines will be potent, effective, and magical. On the counter, I’ve already finished my fresh New England Aster flower tincture; this keeps my lungs in good health and helps me manage my chronic asthma without pharmaceuticals. A pot of olive oil is infusing with herbs is on the stove; I am getting ready to add beeswax and pour it off into small jars.  This healing salve will be for friends and family as Yule gifts.  The kitchen is bursting with good things and healing energy.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

In last week’s post, we explored some different ways to interact with and harvest plants: an animistic worldview that recognizes and honors plant spirits, planting and harvesting by the signs, and preparing for harvest through offerings.  In this week’s post, we’ll talk through different ways to preserve and prepare sacred plant medicine– so let’s get started!

 

An Herbal Sacred Grove

Before beginning your plant preparations, I would suggest setting up a sacred space (what we druids call a Sacred Grove). You can create a sacred space in which to prepare your sacred plant medicine. I offered details for one way of doing this in my earlier post on Hawthorn tincture creating.  You could also do so using an existing grove ritual (from OBOD, AODA, etc) or by creating your own.  I love to do this and I have found that it really adds to the magic and power of my plant preparations. For sacred plant crafting, I typically use a modified version of AODA’s solitary grove opening, including the Sphere of Protection.  The Sphere of Protection is highly adaptable, drawing upon the four elements and the solar, telluric, and lunar currents (three realms of spirit).  For plant medicine, I will use something like this (depending on the plants I’m working with at that time):

  • East/Air – New England Aster
  • South/Fire- Sassafras
  • West/Water – Hawthorn
  • North/Earth – Reishi Mushroom
  • Spirit Below/Telluric Current – Comfrey
  • Spirit Above/Solar Current – Goldenrod
  • Spirit Within/Lunar Current – Reishi

So my opening might look something like this:

  • Declare the intent of the ceremony
  • Declare peace in the quarters (part of the druid tradition)
  • Druid’s prayer / Druid’s prayer for peace (part of the druid tradition)
  • Sphere of protection; sealing the space
  • Offering to the spirits of the plants

Once the grove is open, I can begin my plant preparations, recognizing the sacredness and magic in this work.

If you plan on continuing to do sacred herbalism, I would suggest developing your own version of your sacred grove opening.  It can be dedicated to certain plants or activities, be done in a special room at a special time, etc.  The important thing is to make it matter for you!

 

Garbling

Once you have harvested a plant, you should engage in what is known as “garbling.” Garbling has both mundane and magical qualities.  On the mundane level, this basically means going though the plant material, cleaning it, removing bugs or soiled parts, and making sure you don’t have parts of other plants (like blades of grass) in there. As part of the garbling process, if you are drying your plants, you will want to remove any thick stems–this can prevent plants from drying thoroughly.  On the magical level, this process lends your energy to the plants you’ve harvested.  Feel their energy, attune with them, and do a bit of energy exchange with the plants you harvested.

 

Drying Plants

Plants need to be very dry if they are to stay fresh and preserved over a period of time or if you are going to use them in an herbal preparation. One of my favorite tools is a portable herb air drying rack. Its a mesh column with tiers where you can lay many fresh herbs.  If you hang this up in your house or porch, your herbs can be dried in a matter of days and not use any fossil fuels.  Other options include an electric dehydrator (sometimes necessary in places or times of high humidity).  If using a dehydrator, make sure you keep it on the lowest (herb) setting. Solar dehydrators (such as this design here) are another good option.  The oven is not a good option for most plants for drying, particularly leaf and flower parts; the oven starts out about 100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than you want for your plants and you will likely burn them. You can use the oven to “finish off” already mostly dry material, however.

 

If you feel your plants and they still feel soft or cool, they are likely not yet dried enough for proper storage.  This is particularly a problem in high humidity areas. You might finish them off for 10 min in the oven at the lowest setting to make sure they are super dry.  Then place them in a mason jar (which has an excellent lid that won’t allow any bugs, dust, etc, inside and place them in a cool, dark place.

 

Typically, drying directly in the sun is not a good idea.  The sun destroys many of the volatile oils, which is where a lot of medicinal content is held in the plants.  So air dry them, but never in direct sunlight. (This is also why you store plants in a cool, dark space–because sunlight is damaging to the longevity and potency of dried herbs and tinctures). You can use the sun’s energy for other kinds of preparations, however!

 

Specific Plant Preparations: Teas, Tinctures, Oils, and Salves

 

Healing Plant Tea (Infusion or Decoction)

If you are drying plants and storing them, you are already ready to make tea. Tea is best used for working on the internal systems of the body; the gut and GI system can hugely benefit from healing teas.  For teas, I usually grind up my plant matter a bit further (in a mortar and pestle, or cut them up further with herb scissors).  This is done so that the water has more spaces and opportunities to extract the plant matter. There are two kinds of herbal teas that you can make: infusions or decotions; the kind you make depends on the plant matter you are working with.

 

Infusions are created when boiling water is poured over plant matter and allowed to sit for 5-20 or so minutes (what we typically know as ‘tea’ using a tea bag).  This method is best for leafy plant matter and flowers.  When you make an infusion, make sure to cover the tea so that you are not losing the volatile essential oils through the steam (that’s often where the most concentrated medicine is).  The longer you let the tea sit, the stronger it will be, and for medicinal teas, 10-15 minutes is a good amount of time.  You can use tea strainers or purchase single use tea bags that can be sealed or tied.  I prefer the metal tea strainers as I make a lot of tea and don’t want the tea bag paper to go to waste.  Good plants for infusion teas include: mints, rosemary, lavender, monarda, lemon balm, chamomile, catnip, nettle, and more.

 

Decoctions are created when you boil your plant matter, with a lid, in the water, again for 10-20 minutes.  These are best for roots, barks, nuts, and other tough woody plant matter as it takes more time to extract the medicine from roots and woody material.  A hard boil of a plant would destroy leafy bits and flowers, so if you are combining woody bits or roots with flowers, add your flowers after you are done boiling and allow them to sit (again with the lid on) for 10 or so minutes before drinking your tea.  Plants for decoction: sassafras root, wild cherry bark, echinacea root, yellow dock root, etc.

 

You can also add the energy of the sun and/or the moon to your tea:

Sunlight and solar tea!

Sunlight and solar tea!

Lunar tea: A great way to bring the energy of the moon.  For infusions, pour boiling water over your plant material and allow it to sit in a jar with a lid in the moonlight.  For decoctions, boil your plant matter and add to a mason jar with a lid.  Let it sit overnight in the moonlight. Drink the next day and enjoy the energy of the moon.

 

Solar tea:  Some days, the sun is hot enough to do its own infusion of leafy or flower plant material.  Place your material in a large mason jar (I like to use the half-gallon mason jars) and sit it in the sun.  If you want to make your tea stronger, consider putting your jar on a reflective surface (like in a big stainless steel bowl) to increase the heat.  For decoctions, I like to soak my plant matter in advance in the sun (in a pot or jar) and then do the final boil.

 

Finally, you can make a ritual out of drinking your tea: perhaps it’s what you drink each morning when you rise, or each evening as you are getting ready for meditation.  I like to make my tea and then walk out on our land here, communing with the plants both within the tea and without!

 

Healing Plant Tincture (Alcohol, Vinegar, and Glycerine)

Tinctures are potent extracts that turn the plant medicine into a more easily accessible form by the body, and are used for an extremely wide range of uses (daily strengthening, cleansing, supporting a healthy fever, gut issues, etc). Tincturing can be a fairly complex and involved process if you want it to be (I wrote about it in much greater depth on my herbalism blog), but we are going to use a simple folk method here.  A tincture suspends healing plant matter in a menstra (in our case, alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine) which makes the medicinal properties more readily available and also preserves them for a period of time (for vinegar and glycerine, about a year; for high proof alcohol, indefinitely).

 

Alcohol tinctures. Your goal for most plant matter is to have at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. Start by chopping your fresh or dried plant matter finely.  If you are using fresh plant matter, you will want to start with a higher proof alcohol (as the plants add some additional water). You can use a “neutral” spirit; vodka is a typical choice for most herbalists.  An 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, so even if your plant material has a bit of water in it, you should still be above 25% alcohol when you are finished. Place your chopped plant matter into a jar, and weigh it down with a smooth, clean stone that you have scrubbed well in advance.  You can do this without the stone, but the stone really helps keep all of the plant matter submerged, which prevents mold and other issues.  Pour your alcohol over it and store in a cool, dark place for one moon cycle.  Strain your material, and enjoy!  Tinctures can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make them taste a bit better (or just take them in a glass of water).

 

Glycerine tinctures (glycerites). Glycerites have a shelf life about a year, and often taste a lot better than alcoholic preparations.  They are also very good for children or people who cannot have alcohol (such as those in recovery). Purchase some vegetable glycerine (in the USA, if you find “USP Glycyerine” the USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia, which means it is a pure and standard formula). Water the glycerine down by 50% and add your plant matter, usually dried (or water it down less if you are using fresh).  Give it all a good shake and let it sit for one moon cycle (but not more), shaking it at least once a day.  Strain and enjoy.

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Vinegar tinctures. Vinegars are best for food-based material that you want to build into your cooking and consumption regularly and can be a great addition to an herbal medicine cabinet. For example, my father needed to have regular hawthorn in his diet and he enjoyed eating vinegar and oil on his salad, so I prepared him a hawthorn-infused apple cider vinegar that he could use each day with his meal.  Vinegar tinctures are made similar to the others–start with a high quality vinegar, preferably organic.  Chop up your plant matter finely and add it to your jar.  Let the plants infuse in the jar for one moon cycle, strain, and enjoy.  One more common vingear based preparation you may have heard of is “Fire Cider“; it is a vinegar-based tincture of ginger, onions, garlic, horseradish, and herbs that is used for healing purposes.

 

Some Plants for tincturing: Monarda (bee balm, antimicrobial), Nettle (anti-histamine, adrenal support), Goldenrod (anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory), Culinary Herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano – good for the vinegar infusion), Chickweed, Wild Yam.

 

Healing Plant Infused Oil

Infused oils are topically used primarily for wounds/stings/bug bites, for joint/muscle issues, or for varicose veins and other skin issues. Herbalists have a multitude of ways to make an infused plant oil, and I will share two of the most simple ways. Start by thoroughly drying your plant matter (see instructions above) and chopping it finely; if you are in a hurry, at least “wilt” your plant material for 12 or so hours by letting it sit on the counter before using it. Choose a good quality oil, I most often use organic olive oil as it is readily available.  Coconut oil is another good choice, but only if you will be keeping it in a temperature controlled environment due to its low melt point.  Otherwise, at some point, your infused oil may be solid or liquid (and this is even more important if you plan on making it into salve).

 

Pour the oil over the plant matter, making sure the plant matter is thoroughly saturated.  Leave in a sunny window or on the porch on warm days for one week, then drain and store in a cool, dark place for use.

 

Alternatively, you can use a double boiler on a low setting and infuse the oil for 12-24 hours.  Ensure the oil doesn’t get too hot–if your plant leaves turn brown and crispy, you likely made it too warm and boiled away the medicine. Thoroughly strain your oil with a small strainer or cheesecloth, and store in a cool, dark place for further use.

Infusing plants

Infusing plants

Make sure your oil is completely strained; small bits of plant matter can make it spoil much faster.  Also make sure there are no water bubbles in it; they will appear on the bottom and look like little clear or brownish bubbles. These will also make the infused oil spoil much, much faster.

 

Healing Salve

To make a salve from infused oil, begin by placing your strained oil into a double boiler and heating it up.  Add approximately 3 tbsp of beeswax (shaved or grated finely) per cup of infused oil.  As the oil heats up, the beeswax will melt. You can add less beeswax for a more liquid salve or more beeswax for a harder salve.

 

To test the consistency of your salve, place a spoon in the freezer and then pull it out and put a few drops of your salve on the spoon to see its consistency.  When you are happy with the consistency, you can add any additional essential oils (in small quantities; I like to add sweet orange or rosemary oil to make it smell nice).  Pour your salves into small jars or tins. Let them cool and then label appropriately.

 

Plants that work well for salve (in any combination): Plantain (skin healing, drawing), Calendula (skin healing), Comfrey (wound closing), St. John’s Wort (inflammation), Ground Ivy (skin healing, drawing), Chickweed (skin healing), Goldenrod (inflammation).

 

Conclusion

The world of plant medicine and herbalism represents a lifetime of study–but the best way to learn is to start doing it!  Next week, in our final post in this series, we talk about making herbal flower/leaf essences and working deeply with the spirit of plants. Blessings!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part I:Harvesting by the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Sacred Intent October 14, 2018

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

A field of goldenrod, nettle, and aster greet me on this warm post- Fall Equinox day.  As the moon comes up with a sliver in the afternoon sky, I joyfully take my basket and harvest knife into the field for my fall plant preparations. The breeze has change on the air–winter is coming soon, and the sacred medicines I prepare will bring my family nourishment and strength for the coming dark half of the year. As we are well into the harvest season at this lovely Fall Equinox, I thought I’d take the time to talk about harvesting and preparation by the sun and moon and honoring the harvest. Next week, I’ll talk about the most basic plant preparations and we’ll end this series with talking about energetic preparations through the creation of flower and leaf essences.  That is, we’ll talk about the medicine of both the body and of the soul.

 

Wheel of the Sun, the Phase of the Moon, and the Turning of the Stars

With working with plant spirits, as we’ve been exploring in this series, we can do everything with sacred intent and awareness that plants aren’t just physical beings. This includes our planting, harvesting, and plant preparations. I have found that when I time my herbal practices by the wheel of the sun (harvesting and planting on sacred days, particularly Beltane, the Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain), these sacred times add a bit of magic to my plant preparations. Further, by working with the plants on these sacred days, I begin building a more rich and full wheel of the year practice focusing on medicine and healing. This means, that, over the years, I have special plants that I harvest at certain times of year, and part of my celebration of that sacred say includes harvesting plants. Some of these plants, like tobacco, are plants that I grow while others are wild plants that I have cultivated a relationship with over time. For example, Elder is one such plant: the Summer Solstice is “here” for me when elder is in bloom, and I will often make elderflower cordial on that day to enjoy throughout the year. When the Elder is ripe with fruit, Lughnasadh is here, and I make elderberry elixir for health and healing. These two plant preparations are not only critical to the health of my family throughout the year, but also help me mark and celebrate these holidays with something meaningful.  You might select a few plants to cultivate this kind of yearly relationship with.

 

Moon phases

Moon phases – the Land card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

The phases of the moon offer additional opportunities for sacred timing and herbal preparations. To me, there is little as enjoyable as going out under the full moon or dark moon to create a flower essence. There are two ways to use the phases of the moon: the simple way based only on moon phase, and the more complex way based on what planet astrologically the moon is in at that given time.  In terms of moon phases, preparing and harvesting at a new moon or during the waxing moon is good for when you want to bring healing into the body, strengthen the body, or offer nutrients to the body. The full moon  brings power to herbal creations and energizes them. A waning moon helps draw out or remove toxins, sickness, or other impurities.  If I want to work with removing sickness from the body, perhaps I start with a lunar flower essence of wormwood or walnut, created during the waning moon, and draw upon that energy to help remove sickness.

 

The turning wheel of the stars combined with the moon phase through astrology, offers yet a third possibility for harvesting and herbal preparation. This way is the most in-depth, but also perhaps, most powerful. This way to plant, harvest, and prepare herbal preparations by the phase of the moon is to use astrology, specifically, the moon sign. Each month, the moon spends about two days in each of the 12 astrological signs. The easiest way to know what phase the moon is in is to purchase a biodynamic calendar or a farmer’s almanac; both of these will offer this information. Generally speaking, here is what is important to know:

 

  • Water Signs (Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting leafy, above ground material for herbal preparations.
  • Earth Signs (Taurus, Capricorn, Virgo): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting and working with roots (below ground material) for herbal preparations.
  • Air signs (Aquarius, Gemini, Libra): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is considered fairly barren and dry.  Libra, however, is also associated with flowers, so flower harvests and preparations are appropriate under Libra. Otherwise, these signs should be avoided for plant preparations and harvest.
  • Fire Signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius): These signs are good “removal” signs, so good for weeding, but not very good for harvest (with the exception of the fourth quarter fire sign, this will be good for preservation).  Generally, you want to avoid harvesting under these signs.

 

These moon phases are fairly complex and can change on a daily basis; what I like about the biodynamic calendar and/or farmer’s almanac is that they spell it out for you on each day (and down to each minute). If you are practicing astrology, you wouldn’t need this kind of tool, but if you aren’t, it is very useful.

 

These are all tried and true methods for working with plants and also recognizing the many different ways in which sacred timing can be used to increase the potency of the plants. There are many opportunities to choose timing that best fits your purpose with herbal creations, and doing so adds a layer of sacredness to your actions.  Some of these systems may be contradictory (what if the moon is in a fire sign, but it is the Fall Equinox and you want to harvest?) so you need to pick your time and focus on the energy of that particular aspect.  I have found that the wheel of the sun has the most power, and if not, I will use a combination of the second two; or work hard to find the perfect moment where all three are in alignment (like 2 days before the fall equinox when the full moon is taurus for root harvest and preparation!) You don’t always get such amazing timing, but when you can, it makes the event more meaningful.

 

Honoring Spirit and Harvesting Plants

From an animistic perspective, when you harvest a plant or do any other kind of plant preparation, engaging in respect and honor is part of the necessary work. Part of this is because plants are lending you healing power through its actual body; in the case of root harvests, your harvest may end the life of that plant entirely. I believe that part of the sacred medicine of the plant is built into the relationship that you, as preparer, have with the plant itself.  In taking any part of a plant for healing purposes, and asking a plant to work for us, it is only right that we honor the plant spirit as part of our harvest.  We can harvest ethically and with sacred intent. So let’s talk about a few ways we might do this:

 

Honoring the plant. Prior to harvest, make an offering of some kind to the plant. This can be anything simple: a blend of herbs specially prepared (see my tobacco Beltane blend, for example), a song, music, drumming, a dance, a bit of your own liquid gold, a bit of your own energy, a small stone or other token.  Doing this ensures reciprocation between you and the plant, and lets the plant spirit know that you respect it. I belive this also makes the medicine stronger, as you are building a relationship of respect and mutuality with the plant. You might find, through inner listening, that the plant has a particular kind of offering it wants you to make–and different plants, just like other kinds of people, have a variety of different preferences.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

 

Harvesting for life. Harvest only what you need and think you’ll use.  For anything above the ground, harvest parts of plants or plants at the end of their life cycle, taking a small amounts.  For plants that are abundant, you can harvest more; for plants that are rare, harvest very little (or cultivate them further before harvesting anything at all). If you are doing a root harvest, make sure that your harvest will not damage the larger plant population.  I grow or wild cultivate nearly all of the plants I want to do a root harvest from, that way I am in control of exactly how many plants I have planted and how many I am going to harvest. I will not harvest from wild populations unless A) they are extraordinarily abundant and B) I have already worked to spread these populations further.  You can also consider doing plant or flower essences for plants that are extremely rare (Indian Ghost Pipe being a good example).

 

Cultivation and Relationship. Harvest and preparation are not one-shot events but rather, can be lifetime experiences rooted in a practice of nature spirituality. This means that these plants aren’t just a passerby you interact with once in a while, but can be strong plant allies and friends. Recently, I shared a post at Lughnasadh about how to cultivate long-standing relationships with plant spirits.  I used sacred tobacco (nicotiana rustica) as my example for this work and offered one strategy to do so.  The plant spirit posts I also recently shared offer more tools for this work.

 

That’s it for this week–during my next post, we’ll get into four different kinds of preparations you can make: drying herbs and teas, tinctures, infused oils and salves, and finally, plant essences.

 

Resources to Learn the Inner and Outer Worlds of Herbalism: Plants, Books, Courses, Lore, and More April 4, 2015

drying herbs

drying herbs

I have been doing an ongoing series of posts about herbalism: herbalism as a druidic practice, my path into herbalism, and medicine making during sacred times of the year. Given the fact that its early spring, and the herbs are starting to emerge back into the world, I wanted to follow-up with another post about how one can go about learning to be an herbalist and some of the resources to get you started.

 

There are a lot of ways to become an herbalist, but I would start by saying that the study of herbs is no quick thing. Like anything worth doing, it requires dedication and practice. Traditional western herbalism contains an immense body of knowledge that requires not only good memory and study skills, but also intuition, observation, and reasoning. You will be challenged, fully, by studying the herbs, their medicine, and their work upon the body. It will take years to develop enough knowledge to be a deeply effective herbalist, but you will also learn things even on your first day of studying herbs that you can apply to better your health and address various ailments.

 

Taking a Local, Sustainable Approach. I want to start by emphasizing that traditional western herbalists, myself included, try as much as possible to take a local approach to plants. This means getting to know local plants that grow or that can be cultivated, gathering them or growing them yourself, and using them rather than those that perhaps are more widely commercially available, but are not locally grown. Many of the really popular plants that are commercially available, like Goldenseal, Osha, or Black Cohosh also suffer from serious overharvesting and and are threatened–this is not sustainable.  There are ways of getting these plants sustainably, specifically, from small herb farms who cultivate them and harvest without disrupting wild populations. But those farms’ products are likely not found in your typical heath food store and have to be sought out.

 

As a locally-based herbalist, using the local plants will allow you to monitor the health of the species and grow some yourself.  Even if you have no land, a trip into the nearest farmer’s field, your family’s front yard, or a nearby forest can greet you with a wealth of herbs (in fact, the first herbs that are easy to learn like dandelion, plantain, violet, strawberry and ground ivy can all be typically found in most lawns). But also, being able to grow and gather your own plants puts you in a relationship with that plant that you would not otherwise have. There’s a huge energetic difference between harvesting stinging nettles fresh vs. opening up a plastic bag that you’ve purchased–a difference from a sustainable perspective, but also a difference from an energetic perspective. Using plants that are more abundant, too (read= invasive) can also help control their populations. For example, purple loosestrife, much maligned throughout Michigan, makes one of the best remedies for conjunctivitis.

 

Taking a local approach to plants is especially important to note because so much of our culture (and our own behavior patterns) is designed to fuel consumptive behavior.  If we really want to break free of consumptive cycles, it means doing a lot more things ourselves, and gathering and growing our own herbs is one of them.  I know there are a lot of well-meaning herb companies, but they still ship their herbs using fossil fuels, they still bottle or bag up herbs in plastic…all of this can be avoided (or mostly avoided) by taking a local approach.

 

Dana's herb class - 2014

Dana’s herb class – 2014

In-Person Herbal Intensives. One of the best ways for finding information on locally available medicinal plants is by learning it in person from someone who practices herbalism locally or regionally, which brings me to in-person herbal courses. I strongly suggest that if you are serious about learning herbs, try to find an in-person herbal intensive. Better yet, if you can take classes from a few different herb teachers, do so. I had read herbals before taking my year-long herbal intensive class, but learning herb through plant walks, lectures, and discussions fit my mode of learning much better, and allowed me to ask questions and also learn from other students. Plus, my herb teacher is one of my favorite human beings–many herbalists are cool, quirky, weird people who are fun to learn from and get to know. Mountain Rose herbs maintains a list of herbal schools here. Some herbal schools are in-person only (like my class from Jim McDonald); others offer distance courses, such as Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class.

 

Wilcrafting Plants: Plant Identification. If you want to be a locally-based herbalist and use plants in your area, you want to learn not only about the herbs yourself, but how to grow and/or wildcraft those plants. Wildcrafting medicines and growing one’s own is actually, in my opinion, not only encouraged by necessary for good herbal practice. We have this tendency in our culture to just be willing to purchase everything–and certainly, plenty of herbal supplements, tinctures, or dried plants are ready to be purchased (and for some without access to plants or with limited mobility, this may be the only option). But if you have the means, invest the time in learning the plants and how to use them. If this is your goal, you  will want to get out there and start finding things! I want to refer you to my two-part series on wildcrafting as a good start (these articles include information that is applicable for wildcrafting herbs for healing/medicine). I’ve mentioned a few books really good for plant identification before–one of my favorites is Oslund and Oslund’s What’s Doin’ the Bloomin? You can also get many different kinds of apps and other resources–these are plentiful and a library has much to offer! Look also, for older plant taxonomies and guides–there are some lovely books easy to find and usually quite cheap that can teach you about tree identification, flowers, etc. The Audobon Society puts out a series of compact field guides will full color photos.  You can also get apps, like the free Leaf Snap, that can be super helpful if you are into the smartphone thing (I’m not, lol).

 

Learning about the Body: Energetics and Actions. Picking up an herbal and saying “oh, such and such plant is good for X” is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble–and while this method may work for simple ailments (like a burn, which is always in a hot state) its not good herbal practice. Why? Because traditional western herbalism doesn’t work like alleopathic (mainstream) medicine. Traditional western herbalism recognizes that each person’s “energetic” state in their body is different and how illness manifests in the body likewise, may be different. This means, in order to treat something, you need to know enough about energetics (called “tissue states“; the link gives Matthew Wood’s take on it) to give the right herb that will compliment and address the person’s energetic state manifesting in response to a condition.

 

Here’s what I mean–if you have a cold, your cold might be manifesting as cold (meaning you have the chills) and stagnant (meaning nothing is moving, the snot is stuck in your head) or you might have a cold that is hot (you are running a fever) and damp (you have a damp, wheezy cough, your snot runs profusely, and so on). These all very different states that the body is in–and require different herbs.  I’d use warming and stimulating herbs to treat the first condition while I’d use cooling and drying herbs to treat the second; for both I’d use immune system aids to aid the body along. If I gave the hot/damp person hot herbs, that may aggravate the condition even if the herb also had some sort of immune system boost.

 

So, the solution to this is before you dive into the herbs themselves, you should learn about how energetics work.  For this, the best book I have found is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. If you want to get started, my herb teacher, Jim, has a guide posted here. The second thing these books and resources will teach you is about herbal actions, or what effect the herb actually has on the body (e.g. plantain coat and soothe the mucus membranes with its mucilaginous quality).

 

Once you understand basic energetics, you can move on to using and understanding materia medicas (that is, herbal books)….

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures–in this case, from queen anne’s lace–from wildcrafted ingredients

Learning about herbs: Materia Medicas. Over the years, many different guides to specific herbs–Materia Medicas–have been written by skilled herbalists. There are several for free online, like Grieve’s Modern Herbal and Culpeppers Herbal. These are great resources and places to get started! My personal favorite herbals are Matthew Wood’s two Earthwise Herbals (Vol 1 and Vol 2). You will need to purchase both to have a full range of herbs. I also really like Adele Dawson’s Herbs: Partners in Life which as gifted to me about a year ago by two dear friends. Dawson doesn’t just talk about remedies, she also gives recipes and her innate knowledge of herbs. I think each herbalist will have his or her own favorite books–but the ones I’ve just listed are some good ones to consider.

 

Making Plant medicine. One of the areas I enjoy the most with herbalism is making various plant medicines. I’ve had a few posts over the years that detail some of my recipes, like Jewelweed Salve, Dandelion Bitters, Sore Muscle Rub, or Steam inhalations. The two books that are my go-to guides for these are complimentary and both excellent purchases: Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. These two present you with all of the principles you need to make awesome goodies.  If you want specific recipes and suggestions, you can pick up one of many Rosemary Gladstar’s books.

 

Plants as Teachers and Allies. A critical part of learning how to be an herbalist is working with the plants themselves as teachers, allies, and guides. While different herbalists have various views on the inner worlds of plants and their teachings, one of my favorite teachers in this regard is Stephen Harrod Buhner. His Secret Teachings of Plants, Sacred Plant Medicine, and The Lost Language of Plants are great places to start.  Many of my writings on druid tree workings and other spiritual practices can also aid you in reaching the plant realm.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but I think my earlier druid tree working posts covers a good deal of the basics :).

 

Learning about the Body: Anatomy and Physiology. But wait, isn’t this about plantsWhen I dove into herbalism a two years ago, I was surprised at just how much I had to learn about the body and its functions…and wished I had taken an anatomy and physiology class while still in college!  Herbalism was just as much about plants as it is about their interaction with the body. The book I’ve used for this is Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy: An Intergrative Guide to the Human Body. There are really good Youtube videos on the subject as well.

 

Learning about food and nutrition. Good eating is the cornerstone to good health. Working to heal your body and keep it in prime health means that you not only need to understand about plants as medicine, but realize that everything that you eat also has the power to heal (or to harm). This was made very abundantly clear to me when I worked with a nutritionist and herbalist to heal my asthma.  In the case of my asthma, which was brought on by a gluten sensitivity, herbs would only take it so far (and would be treating the symptom). By changing my diet and adding herbs, I was able to address the root cause instead. This is all to say that its important to learn about nutrition and healing foods as much as it is to learn about healing plants. Jim Mcdonald has some good links on herbs and nutrition in his master index here (which is great to check out for many more reasons!)

Dried herbs and old kettles!

Dried herbs and old kettles!

 

Getting the right tools and equipment.  Starting out in herbalism doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything–the plants are freely available on the landscape. However, as you go on, you might find some tools and equipment helpful. Much of this you can repurpose or build yourself.

  • Dehydrator and/or drying rack – to dry herbs for later use, including teas. Teas are best made with dry, not fresh, herbs because the drying process breaks down cell walls.
  • Jars (I use mason jars, reusable and infinitely useful) – for storage of dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, and more.
  • A double-boiler for making infused oils and salves (I found mine for $20 at a garage sale).
  • Tincture press. These are super expensive online, but I made my own for super cheap (instructions are here).
  • A few of the tools for harvesting and foraging: bags, basket, a pair of scissors, gloves (for nettles and prickly things), and a hori-hori knife (these and more listed in this blog post).

 

Herbalism Conferences are wonderful ways to learn from various teachers, attend plant walks, learn about energetics, and more. If you have the time and funds, an herbalism conference is well worth attending! Some conferences include the Herbfolk Gathering, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, and the Great Lakes Herb Faire.

 

Growing Herbs. You can also learn a lot about herbalism just from simply growing a few herbs in your garden. For a full introduction to this, you can see Cech’s The Medicinal Herb Grower.

 

On the process of learning. I think I mentioned on this blog before that part of my research as a university professor is on how people learn. Since undertaking any new learning has its own set of challenges, I’ll conclude with some brief advice from the science of learning that can help you more successfully take your first steps into traditional western herbalism.

  • On setting yourself up for success. Recognize how you learn best, and make your learning conducive to that approach. Perhaps you are a visual learner: seeing the plants, looking at pictures, engaging in observation and study: these will help you learn best. Perhaps you need to learn the big picture first–learning about the big picture of energetics will help you before delving into the herbals. Perhaps you need to learn by doing: find some youtube videos and follow along yourself. The key is to figure out how you learn best and use that strategy to maximize your success.
  • Learning from someone else. Even if you aren’t able to take a class (or even if you are) you’d be surprised who has a bit of herbal knowledge around you. Ask around for people who make teas, use salves, and so on. Its really wonderful to find someone to learn from, even if its just a friend teaching you a few things.
  • Pair up and learn together. Its also wonderful to take a class with a friend or family member or to self-design a curriculum you can use to learn about herbs together. This will lead to rich conversations and keeping each other moving forward.
  • On challenges. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, we don’t grow in the same way that if we are to challenge ourselves frequently to use–and learn new–knowledge. If you want to be a good herbalist, you have to find ways of challenging yourself to grow your herbal knowledge. Maybe tackle a big herbal project, like making a small family herbal medicine cabinet. Whatever it takes to have you grow each time you try something new.
  • On the nature of expertise. Any serious profession or subject requires considerable effort and practice to move from being a novice to to being an expert. Being an expert herbalist may not be your goal, of course.  But for many subjects, research has suggested somewhere between 5000-10,000 hours are necessary to have real “expertise.” Even if being an expert, practicing herbalist, isn’t your goal, realize that learning anything as complex as herbalism does require hours and hours of investment. So be patient and give yourself the space and time to learn.

 

I hope this post has illustrated some ways to learn about herbs and that you find it useful!  I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with herbs, dear readers!

 

Ode to the Dandelion May 26, 2014

I remember a sunny day not too long ago in early May when I was visiting my parents in western Pennsylvania. Everywhere we drove, dandelions were growing, their beautiful, bright yellow heads serenading the sun. After one of the coldest winters in modern history, seeing fields and lawns full of dandelions reflecting back the light of the sun was a blissful experience. “Here we are!” the dandelions cried out. “We are bringing sunlight and spring back into the world! Hear our song!” And I could tell they were doing just that, their sunburst flower heads reflecting the warmth and heat, welcoming spring to the lands once again. As we were driving, I remarked to my parents how nice it was that people were letting them grow instead of mowing them or putting chemicals on them. The photograph is below–this was one of the fields that I saw.  However, I had spoken too soon–not a day later, fields and lawns I had photographed full of dandelions were mowed, one after another.  It seemed that everyone took that day to mow down their dandelions, spray them, and then the fields left their magical dandelion state and went back to mundane green.

Fields of Dandelions...mowed hours later!

Fields of Dandelions…mowed hours later!

The dandelion, perhaps more than any other plant, instills hatred and virility across the US landscape. The dandelion seems to be enemy #1: Americans and other industrialized nations spend millions of dollars and dump millions of petrochemical weed killers on getting rid of dandelions.  In my few short days visiting my parents, I witnessed people digging them out, mowing them down, spraying them, and expressing frustration and anger at the sight of them. In some townships and developments, they are banned from the landscape. A friend tells me how her subdivision has banned the dandelion and anyone who has them growing in their yard can be fined up to $100 a week. The irony of all of this, of course, is that the reason this plant is in the US at all is because our ancestors brought it here due to its highly beneficial nature.

 

Why is there such hatred for the dandelion today, when in previous generations, it was a revered plant? I think there are a number of underlying factors.  First, the perfect (tame) green lawn is an incredibly powerful myth that people hold onto, something they strive to have, for reasons largely lost on me. The dandelion challenges that myth and requires work to remove; it challenges the idea that we can tame nature.  Second, we have a profound lack of knowledge about about the role of the dandelion and how beneficial it can be to the land, the insects, and ourselves.  Third, the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” masks its beneficial nature–weeds are pests, unwanted plants that plague humanity….if only they realized that settlers brought the dandelions here in the first place due to their beneficial nature!

 

In this post, I’m going to present an alternative view to the dandelion, and discuss its important role in our ecosystem and in our own lives.  If we want to shift to more sustainable practices and a more spiritual way of interacting with the land, we need to start seeing dandelions as allies, not enemies.  And allies they are, providing us with land healing, nutrition, medicine, beauty, whimsy, and even wine!

 

What is a Dandelion?

A dandelion (taraxacum officinale) is a hardy perennial wildflower that grows across temperate regions in the Americas, Asia and Europe.  It often appears as one of the first flowers in spring, although can be found blooming throughout the summer months.  The dandelion is naturalized to the North American region, being brought here by European settlers, who found dandelions to be so useful that they  planted dandelions wherever they went.

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

 

Why does the Dandelion grow in your lawn?  What is it doing there? Why is it important?

Before I get into the specific benefits of the dandelion, the issue of the lawn must first be addressed. The lawn itself is an attempt to put nature in an unnatural state that requires fossil fuels and many human hours of labor to maintain.  The lawn is the largest “crop” in cultivation in the USA, yet it produces no food. The dandelion’s role in the ecosystem is a restorative plant: it comes in and attempts to restore the lawn to a more natural state, to heal the damage that has been done.  It does this in at least three ways: through rejuvenating the nutrients in the soil, through reducing soil compaction, and through preventing soil erosion.

 

Dandelions, according to Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture, are helpful plants that rejuvenate damaged and compacted soil.  When we strip the soil bare (say, at a construction site or in a new subdivision where the current practice is to remove all topsoil and sell it), dandelions and other rejuvenating plants (burdock, yellow dock, yarrow, clover lamb’s quarters, ground ivy, etc.) start growing to begin to regenerate the soil. These plants are the first of many that will eventually grow, but these plants job is to bring nutrients from deep below the soil, to pull in nutrients from the air into the soil, and generally build soil health.  If this bare soil was left on its own, eventually dandelions would give way to larger shrubs and bushes, eventually trees and forest would move in (and dandelion would be long gone).

 

In addition to regenerating the land in terms of nutrients, one of the things that dandelion is particularly good for is breaking up compacted soil.  Most of the “lawn” spaces are repeatedly driven over with heavy machinery, causing substantial soil compaction. To see how compacted your soil is, go and try to stick your fingers down in your soil.  If they don’t slide in easily, the soil is likely compacted (compare this to a freshly turned garden soil).  Because of soil compaction, its very hard for many plants to establish root systems. Therefore, one of the most important roles dandelion plays in our ecosystem is to break up compacted soil with its deep taproot.

 

That same deep taproot and carpet of dandelions can help quickly prevent soil erosion and the loss of nutrients from the soil.  Soil erosion is a serious issue–in our nation’s history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was largely caused by poor soil erosion control (wind erosion).  This led to substantial crop and farm failure and contributed to the worsening of the Great Depression.

 

Understanding a bit about the soil quality, soil compaction, and soil erosion, we can now understand why dandelions show up in so many lawns!  They are attempting to heal the soil so that other plants can grow.

Other Benefits of Dandelions for the Land

In addition to building healthy soil, the dandelion has numerous benefits for other creatures in the landscape.  Bees and insects of all kinds depend on it for survival, as do various other animals.

As a beekeeper, I welcome the dandelions at the start of spring.  After a long, cold winter, all of the bees are hungry; dandelion provides them with the earliest source of nectar and pollen. Pollen is a critical part of the bees’ diet; pollen provides protein that the bees use as a food source and to raise their own young.  Without the pollen in the early spring from dandelions and other flowers, bees might sacrifice protein in their own bodies to raise their young.  Considering the plight of the bees, especially the honeybee, anything we can do to aid in their survival (such as letting dandelions grow) is critical.

Furthermore, if one mows a field of dandelions in full bloom, one risks killing thousands and thousands of bees–domesticated honeybees as well as wild pollinators like bumble bees or mason bees.  We need those same bees to come along and pollinate our tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and many other plants later in the season, and they form a vital part of our ecosystem!  For the sake of the bees, don’t mow down that field or lawn of dandelions!

 

Harvesting Dandelion

In the sections that follow, I’ll describe some recopies using the different parts of the dandelion plant–this info on harvesting will help you understand how to ethically and safely harvest. When harvesting any wild food/medicine, you want to be very careful about where you harvest.  Harvesting from your neighbor’s lawn, when your neighbor sprays every few weeks, is a very bad idea.  Likewise, harvesting too close to an old house (that may have had lead paint) or by the roadside (that once had cars with leaded gasoline) is likewise not a good idea.  I usually harvest my dandelions from inside my organic garden–encourage their growth on the edge of my garden to attract pollinators, and when the stray ones grow up in my beds, I pull them out.

 

If you are going for the root, you’ll obviously be harvesting the whole plant.  I suggest harvesting roots early in the spring or late in the fall if you can do so–the energy of the plant is in the root during these times.  Once the root sends up its greenery, you lose some of the energy of the plant into the greenery and seed production.  With that said though, roots can be harvested all through the spring, summer, and fall.  To clean the roots, you can wash them easily with a big bucket and a hose outside–rinse them off till the dirt is gone.  I usually go through several changes of water and use a scrub brush and they are clean.  What you do with the roots at that point is up to you (see “Dandelion as Medicine” and “Dandelion as Food” below).

 

The greens are best harvested in the spring, as the plants are shooting up their new growth.  If you are harvesting greens, the rule of thumb is that the younger the greens, the less bitter they are.  The energy of the plant is in the greens at that time. You want some of the bitter nature of the plant (more on that below) but too much bitter may not be so palatable!  Again, you can harvest from any safe place and then wash them lightly.

 

I don’t really think in most places you can overharvest dandelion to the point of threatening the plant.  Do be aware, however, of how many dandelions are in the immediate area (especially if you are digging roots) and harvest only as many as you need.  Do also be aware that bees and other insects need them as a food source, so harvest with that in mind.  I have an abundance of dandelion in my yard, so I harvest as much as I’d like, knowing there will always be more!

 

Fields of dandelion

Fields of dandelion

Dandelion as Medicine

The way that I use dandelion most often is as a medicine.  Dandelion’s entire plant has medicinal qualities.

Bitters. One of the primary medicinal qualities of a dandelion is that it is a bitter. Bitters are found quite a bit in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll get exactly what I mean).  But when we cut bitters out of our diet, our digestion began to suffer.  My herb teacher, Jim Mcdonald, describes bitters as stimulating all digestive functions, including the stomach acids, saliva, stomach enzymes, hormones produced in the stomach, bile, and so on. Each of these, in turn, help break down food and add to digestion and overall gastrointestinal well being.

Bitters should be seen as a tonic, that is, they are something we don’t take only when we are sick, but rather something we take every day to help keep us in optimal health.  I take my dandelion bitters before each meal–in order for the bitters to be effective, you have to taste them.  A few drops of my dandelion root tincture on my tongue (see recipe) will help my digestion each day!

Beyond the immediate physical benefits, I there is also a spiritual side to the bitters.  You are taking and extracting the essence of a plant, preserving it in alcohol, and then taking that plant as medicine.  This puts you in communion of the plant (even more so if you harvest/grow the plant itself).  This has powerful spiritual implications for those who choose to seek them.

 

Dandelion Root Tea

Another way to take your daily dose of dandelion is through tea.  Here are two kinds of recipes:

Fresh tea: The fresh tea is simple to make–dig up a number of roots (which shouldn’t be too difficult). Wash your roots, chop them up, and bring them to boil with several cups water (think about 1/2 tablespoon root per 1 cup water). Boil for 40 minutes and then enjoy.

Dried Tea: The dried tea can be enjoyed the same way as fresh.  After harvesting, you can chop and dry out the dandelion root.  I usually just let it air dry, but you can also use a dehydrator.  The dried root tea can be prepared like the fresh tea.  Also consider adding other medicinal herbs to your blend!

 

 

Dandelion as Food

Dandelion can be ingested in many ways, the health benefits of which I discussed under “dandelion as medicine.”  The nutritional value of dandelion plants are also quite high–they are high in vitamins A, B, C and D, and contain potassium, zinc, and iron.  This makes them an all-around great food and drink.  Again, remember that dandelion is a tonic plant, which means we want to be taking it often!

Roasted Root Coffee: The dried and roasted roots also make a great tea (although its a little more like a coffee, and some people drink it as a coffee substitute–coffee, like dandelion, is also a bitter that “moves” you!)  Again you’ll want to dig up as many roots as you’d like.  Now you’ll want to chop them.  To chop them quickly, you can use a food processor.  Set your oven to 250 degrees, and lay your roots out on a baking sheet (or several).  Over the next two hours, check on them fairly often, stirring them to ensure an even roast.  When you have them to the desired darkness, you can pull them out of the oven.  Before serving, I usually grind them up further in a coffee grinder so that I get a nice ground.  You want to store the grounds  in an airtight container (like a mason jar).  You can use 1 tablespoon (level) for 1 cup of coffee. You’ll want to boil it for 10-15 min (not just brew like regular coffee).  Add cream and honey!  Delicious!

Dandelion Wine:  I have also had the joy of making dandelion wine, detailed in two posts here and here.

 

Dandelion wine fermenting....

Dandelion wine fermenting….

There are many other ways to enjoy dandelion in the spring, especially the leaves, which can be used in salads, stir fried, sauteed, made into fritters, etc.  An online search will reveal many more recipes!

 

Shifting Consciousness: Dandelions, Whimsy, and Magic

I remember as a child how I would go out into a field of dandelions, pick one seed head after another, and blow them all away.  Dandelions have a very whimsical quality to them.  As they take flight, they appear like little fairies.

Dandelions are truly a plant of the sun–their flowers open when the sun is out, and close at night or in overcast or rainy weather. The seed heads, however, have a lunar quality–they appear like a full moon, and stay that way regardless of the weather or light or darkness, until the wind (or some child) comes and blows them away.  At this point, the seeds take flight; a delicate umbrella carries off the tiny dandelion seed to new ground.

What I’ve been attempting to convey in this book is the importance of shifting our own consciousness, of understanding dandelions as more than just a “pesky weed” but an incredibly important plant ally that gives so much to the land and to us if we only allow it.  I encourage you to spend some time and sit with the dandelion plant.  Watch her softly move in the breeze.  Watch her seeds take flight.  Dig one up and examine her deep taproot, turn it into medicine, and see the dandelion as a magical, incredible plant that she is.